Monday, August 29, 2011

What Concept Redescription Can Do for an Argument

In 1591, François Viète published In Artem Analyticam Isagoge (Introduction to the Analytic Art), which presented a new way of writing equations that “constituted a radical departure from the traditions of ages” (Dantzig, 2007/1930, p. 89). Viète proposed that all given parameters be represented by consonants and all unknowns by vowels. So, instead of writing 5?2 + 4? + 7, one would write BA2 + CA + 7. Some years later, in his Géométrie, Descartes chose to use the first letters of the alphabet for parameters and the last letters for unknowns: AX2 + BX + 7, a simple improvement that, most likely through its easily visualized polarity, made the new system more intuitive. But the radical step had been Viète’s.

The new notation allowed the paraphrasing of any equation into numerous equivalent forms (Dantzig, p. 90) and made it possible to speak in terms of classes, or “species” of equations, as Viète’s phrase, “logistica speciosa” acknowledges. This reconceptualization thus cleaved algebra definitively from arithmetic: the former was calculating with types and the latter (the logistica numerosa) with individual numerical coefficients (Kline, 1980, p. 122). By rendering abstract all terms in the equation, this tidy new notation also made the arithmetic restrictions concerning negative and complex (e.g., √- 1) numbers irrelevant. “In vain, after this,” notes Dantzig, “will one stipulate that the expression ab has a meaning only if a is greater than b, that a/b is meaningless when a is not a multiple of b, and that na is not a number unless a is a perfect nth power. The very act of writing down the meaningless has given it a meaning; and it is not easy to deny the existence of something that has received a name” (p. 91).

Viète’s discovery is a fine example of what the cognitive psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1992) has called explicit “representational redescription”. Viète’s discovery is also a compact and useful metaphor for thinking about how writers choose to name the concepts they wish to discuss, and how carefully considered redescribing of key concepts, objects, or persons, can enhance their readers’ understanding and appreciation of the argument.

Recently I have come across three examples of very effective concept redescription in non-fictional exposition. The authors reject the accepted name of a concept or person for reasons that make good rhetorical sense. The new names they have chosen to work with allow the reader to engage in the equivalent of escaping the workaday cognitive operations required by the logistica numerosa for the more exotic, forbidding, and fruitful cognitive terrain of the logistica speciosa. In this installment and the next, we will look at how redescription enhances arguments in texts from different disciplines.

As a first example, let’s consider the “placebo effect”. There is a large literature on this effect, with contributions from a number of fields. The word “placebo” is commonly defined as a sham treatment given to trick patients into believing that they are receiving a medically active substance or treatment. In his book on the subject, the medical anthropologist Daniel E. Moerman (2002) claims that the term “placebo” has been used to refer to an overly broad range of phenomena and that it should be abandoned, or reserved only for control-group responses in clinical trials (p. 4). Moerman argues that the placebo effect is precisely not the effect of the placebo (p. 14), but a response to the meaning fashioned from the patient’s involvement with the medical personnel and institution. He therefore redescribes the “placebo effect” as the “meaning response”, and defines it as “the psychological and physiological effects of meaning in the treatment of illness” (p. 14). This redescription allows his concept to include placebos that cause negative effects (i.e., nocebos), thus enlarging the concept (as did Viète’s new procedure), but it does much more than that. He wants to shift the grid so that the central concept is in an entirely different semantic neighborhood, thereby reorienting the argument so that the reader has both a better view of the newly-defined important sights and an enriched set of implicatures and connotations to enhance her experience of those sights. His new term highlights the patient’s role in the process, and ties in closely with his hermeneutic perspective on the heretofore narrowly medicalized studies and theories concerning placebos and their effects. The new term thus broadens the semantic network of the reader, encouraging ideas that might not have been born of the older term and its cognitive and emotional networks.

But one might ask at this point: Is such concept redescription really like the move from the logistica numerosa to the logistica speciosa, and not just a sort of euphemism? Perhaps somewhat like saying “pre-owned” instead of “used” to sell more cars? I shall insist that the argumentatively effective concept redescription is not like euphemism, in which a rather drab or disagreeable concept is made to sound less drab or disagreeable through the use of a funny or aesthetically pleasing word or phrase. In fact, in the examples discussed here, the writer uses a less aesthetically pleasing word that moves away from singularity and toward conceptual extension. This redescription better captures the referent that the writer has in mind, and pries the concept away from the sparkle of the term commonly accepted in discourse on the subject. In our first example above, the Latinate term “placebo” (meaning, “I shall please”) certainly holds more allure than the Old English-derived “meaning”. But taking some of the shine off of the first concept is necessary to have the reader focus on the wider conceptual field of the second term, and on the claimed more extensive and profound psychological effects. What successful concept redescription most often does for an argument is to allow the reader to mentally place the concept alongside others of its species, which have been ignored by, downplayed by, or simply not detectable in the presence of the earlier term -- logistica speciosa.

As a rhetorical choice, Moerman’s presentation of the new term “meaning response” is quite effective. One improvement that could have been made in the exposition would have been to refrain from using the word “placebo” subsequent to his presentation of the new term. Perhaps the interleaving of the two terms is undertaken in the text to remind the reader of the contrast between the two terms. Or perhaps the writer senses that there is more to be gained than lost in this particular case by allowing the two terms to be juxtaposed throughout the text. However, as we will see in next week’s examples, there is much argumentative power to be gained by boldly presenting one’s new term and never (or almost never) looking back.

Dantzig, Tobias. (2007/1930). Number: The language of science. London: Plume.

Karmiloff-Smith, Annette. (1992). Beyond modularity: A developmental perspective on cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kline, Morris. (1980). Mathematics: The loss of certainty. New York: Oxford.

Moerman, Daniel E. (2002). Meaning, medicine and the ‘placebo effect’. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Research Bulletin: Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?

We have all experienced a situation in which the conversation turns to a film one hasn’t seen, or a book one hasn’t read. Before you know it, someone has blurted out what happens at the end, spoiling the story for you. The phenomenon is so common it’s spawned the term ‘Spoiler Alert,’ warning readers (or listeners) that unanticipated or previously unknown information about a story is about to be revealed. But does hearing how a story turns out truly spoil the story? A fascinating new study by graduate student Jonathan Leavitt and Dr. Nicholas Christenfeld, both at UCSD, addresses this question. The researchers asked undergraduate students to read different versions of short stories. In one case, the story was spoiled by a preceding introductory paragraph, in another this spoiler paragraph was integrated into the original story so that it appeared to be part of the actual narrative, and a third condition left the stories untouched. The stories employed were written by well-established authors, such as Anton Chekov, Roald Dahl, and Raymond Carver. After reading each story, the students rated how much they enjoyed it. Surprisingly, people enjoyed the spoiled stories over the unspoiled stories. Moreover, this effect was replicated with different types of stories, including stories that contained an ironic twist, mysteries, and what they described as evocative literary stories. Intriguingly, this effect only occurred when the spoiler paragraph was introduced as separate from the story; once the spoiler paragraph was integrated into the story, no differences in enjoyment were observed. The researchers hypothesize that spoilers might help provide an organizing schema for the story information to follow, leading to easier comprehension and greater enjoyment. Spoilers might also increase anticipation for future events, thus increasing pleasure. This is a very exciting study with some clear strengths, including the presentation of published short stories and replication across various story types. Perhaps we should all go back to those stories we’d neglected after someone else ‘spoiled’ them for us!

Leavitt, J. D., & Christenfeld, N. J. S. (in press). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological Science.

* For a copy of this brief and highly readable study, please contact RM (e-mail in profile). Special thanks to Katrina Fong for bringing this article to my attention.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Such Stuff as Dreams

I am very pleased to announce that today my book Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction (Wiley-Blackwell) is published in North America. It was published last month in Europe. Here is what the kind people at Wiley-Blackwell say about it in their blurb. 

Such Stuff as Dreams explores how fiction works in the brains and imagination of both readers and writers. In this ground-breaking work, Oatley richly illustrates how fiction represents, at its core, a model that readers construct in collaboration with the writer. This waking dream enables us to see ourselves, others, and the everyday world more clearly. Informed by deep scholarly rigor, this is an illuminating and thought-provoking analysis of the transformative power of fiction to enter and engage the mind into revealing profound insights about ourselves and those around us.

Here are its chapters. 

1. Fiction as dream: Models, world-building, simulation
2. The space-in-between: Childhood play as the entrance to fiction

3. Creativity: Imagined worlds

4. Character, action, incident: Mental models of people and their doings
5. Emotions: Scenes in the imagination
6. Writing fiction: Cues for the reader

7. Effects of fiction: Is fiction good for you?

8. Talking about fiction: Interpretation in conversation

You can order it from Wiley (click here), or from or, or

When I started the book my idea was that it would be the third in a series of books on the psychology of fiction, the previous two being Jerry Bruner's (1986) Actual minds, Possible worlds, and Richard Gerrig's (1993) Experiencing narrative worlds, but I was (perhaps) scooped by Norm Holland with his 2009 book Literature and the brain, though the purpose of Norm's book is somewhat different.

The idea for my book is to explore the fiction as simulation of social worlds, and to treat a small number of works of literature by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Kate Chopin, Anton Chekhov, James Baldwin from both a literary and a psychological point of view. I write about some traditional aspects of fiction, including character, plot, setting, and theme, together with techniques such as metaphor, metonymy, defamiliarization, and cues to the reader. I include writing and reading fiction, as well as empirical results on the reading of fiction. I also reflect the change that is occurring as interpretation moves from classrooms to conversation in reading groups and the like.

In style my idea was not only should fiction be able prompt the reader's own thoughts and feelings, but that nonfiction might do so too. So although there is a scholarly argument and evidence (both implicit and more explicitly in the notes), I don't always say what conclusions you might draw. Instead I make suggestions and offer contexts so that you can have your own thoughts and feelings.

I hope you enjoy the book.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gerrig, R. J. (1993). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Holland, N. N. (2009). Literature and the brain. Gainsville, FL: PsyArt Foundation.

Oatley, K. (2011). Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
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Monday, August 8, 2011

In the Brain of the Beholder

A very fine summer school organized by Ed Tan was held this July under the auspices of the University of Amsterdam's Centre for Creation, Content and Technology. Its title was "Reading Mediated Minds: Empathy with persons and characters in media and art works" and it was attended by some forty or so graduate students whose research is on print fiction, media, and film.

The first presentation, entitled "Neuroaesthetics," was by the distinguished neuroscientist Semir Zeki. He announced that that we are at the beginning of a revolution, equal in importance to the Copernican one. It's of being able to find scientific answers to questions about subjective mental states. So striking was this statement, that I thought I had better pass on what Zeki said to readers of OnFiction.

One question, said Zeki, is: What are the neural correlates of beauty and ugliness? Kawabata and Zeki (2004) used 192 paintings categorized as abstract, still life, portraits, and landscapes, and had 10 participants rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, from ugly to beautiful. Some days later in an fMRI machine the participants were shown ugly pictures (that had been rated 1 and 2), neutral pictures (rated 5 and 6) and beautiful pictures (rated 9 and 10). As compared with ugly and neutral paintings, beautiful pictures more strongly activated parts of the visual cortex as well as areas of the orbitofrontal cortex that have previously been found to be associated with reward, and emotional engagement, the more beautiful the picture was rated, the more was the activation. By contrast, ugly paintings (as compared with beautiful ones) more intensely activated parts of the motor cortex.

Zeki went on to say that beauty is not art, but that one of the characteristics of great art is ambiguity. We are familiar with visually ambiguous figures, such as the wife/mother-in-law figure, which can seem like the head of young woman looking away from us over her shoulder, and which alternates with a side-view of the face of an older woman with a prominent chin. Zeki proposed that a characteristic of great art is not visual ambiguity (in the manner of ambiguous figures) but cognitive ambiguity. Modern fMRI studies have shown that ambiguity is a property of the brain, as interpretation shifts so does brain activation.

An example of cognitive ambiguity is Jan Vermeer's painting "The girl with the pearl earring." Zeki (2004) has written about the girl in this picture as follows.
She is at once inviting, yet distant, erotically charged but chaste, resentful and yet pleased. These interpretations must all involve memory and experience, of what a face that is expressing these sentiments would look like. The genius of Vermeer is that he does not provide an answer but, by a brilliant subtlety, manages to convey all the expressions, although the viewer is only conscious of one interpretation at any given moment. Because there is no correct solution, the work of art itself becomes a problem that engages the mind. ‘‘Something, and indeed the ultimate thing, must be left over for the mind to do,’’ wrote Schopenhauer (p. 189).
Zeki pointed out that Michelangelo left two-thirds of his works unfinished and that Cezanne, too, left paintings unfinished, saying that he was not interested in finished paintings, because a painting is finished in the brain.

Kawabata, H., & Zeki, S. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of Neurophysiology, 91, 1699-1705.

Zeki, S. (2004). The neurology of ambiguity. Consciousness and Cognition, 13, 173-196.
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Monday, August 1, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sense of Belonging

Although J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have been fiction's most extravagant success, we at OnFiction seem to have been remiss in mentioning them only once (click here). In that post, last year, we reported that 60% of visitors to the site of World Book Day, when asked what books they had read, mentioned J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books; this was nearly twice as frequently as they mentioned John Grisham's books.

The psychological question is this: Why has Harry Potter been so popular? In a paper just released online by Psychological Science, Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young give some answers. They asked participants to read an extract either from Rowling's Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone (about wizards) or Stephanie Meyer's Twilight (about vampires.) It took participants about 25 minutes to read the extract. They were then measured on an implicit association test based on response times, and on an explicit self-report test of assimilation to the ideal type of wizard or vampire. In one set of trials for the implicit association test, respondents were asked to categorize "me" words ("myself, mine") and "wizard" words ("wand, broomstick, spells, potions") using the same response key, and to categorize “not me” words ("they, theirs") and “vampire” words ("blood, undead, fangs, bitten") using another response key. In another block of trials, the pairings of "me" words and "not me" words with the "wizard" and "vampire" words was reversed. In the explicit self-description test people were asked such questions as “Do you think, if you tried really hard, you might be able to make an object move just using the power of your mind?” and “How sharp are your teeth?”

In both the implicit association task and the explicit self-description statements, people who read an excerpt from Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone took on characteristics of a wizard, and those who read an excerpt from Twilight took on characteristics of a vampire. The effects were larger for those who scored high in collective self construal. The researchers then did a mediation analysis from which they concluded that assimilation to a narrative type (wizard or vampire) put people in a good mood and it also prompted higher scores on a life satisfaction scale. The authors say that such "collective assimilation is psychologically meaningful and relates to the basic human need for connection." A narrative can alleviate loneliness by attaching people to a fictional character or a social group. It can offer a psychological identity which is easily taken up, and which can be psychologically rewarding.

A very useful next step would be to compare the kind of group assimilation that Gabriel and Young have found with individual identification in fiction.

The online version of Gabriel and Young's paper is available to members of the Association for Psychological Science, but for people who have not assimilated themselves to this group, if you send me an owl, it is entirely possible that a pdf of the paper might magically appear in your inbox.

Gabriel, S., & Young, A. F. (2011). Becoming a vampire without being bitten: The narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis. Psychological Science, online.

Meyer, S. (2005). Twilight. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone. New
York, NY: Scholastic.

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